Hansel and Gretel
With a story from The Brothers Grimm
Episode 6 - Sunday, 29 December 2019
Poor little Hansel and poor little Gretel. To be left in the forest to either starve to death or be killed by wild beasts.
This adaptation is based on the 1857 version by the Brothers Grimm and is not for the faint of heart. The wife is pure evil, the father weak, and the witch a cannibal.
Although I have stuck to the original plot, I have not stuck to the original wording. When I read it through it did not work well as a story to perform, so I have changed many of the sentences to give it more of a storyteller's lift. I hope you enjoy the result.
Also this week is another one of my poems. This one is from my Dirt fantasy saga and is an ode to a dragon. The dragons in my stories are very different. They have villages, they have friends who they love, and they might be the size of a cottage, but they are fun, beer-loving, and heroic too.
The music for both the story and the poem are originals written just this week my me. Listen using the player above or or one of the services below.
Hello, good evening, and welcome, as David Frost used to say. You have found yourself Deep in the Dark forest, a podcast of stories and other bits and pieces to make your evening a little sweeter, I hope.
And talking of dark forests and sweet things, that is exactly where we are going with the story today. Hansel and Gretel is one of those tales you have probably known since you were little, and unlike some other of the Grimm’s tales, I think this one tends to remain true to the original story in most its tellings. There are several translations and variations out there from the old one by Margaret Hunt, to the one by Joyce Crick, and countless others. For mine I grabbed the 1857 German version from the Brothers Grimm themselves, then gave it little bits of extra flavour to make it nicer to read.
This is a problem I have had with older English versions of many old tales – they weren’t translated by someone who performs, and the better translations are modern and I haven’t the rights to use those. Most of these stories started life as oral tales passed from mouth to ear in taverns, or down through the years within families. But somehow, once they ended up on paper, they became a bit clumsy and awkward to read, especially in translation. Stories by Hans Christian Andersen fair better simply because he loved and wanted to be in theatre, and it shows in the Danish originals. My adaptations are aimed very definitely at those who want to read out loud. Which is exactly the way tales should be told.
So, without further messing around, here is the story of Hansel and Gretel, from the collection of stories by the Brothers Grimm.
Hansel and Gretel
From the Brothers Grimm
In the shadow of a large forest, beneath the great arches of twisted branches, lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two, young children. The boy was called Hansel, and though he was still very young, he showed the promise of his tall farther. His sister was named Gretel. She was much the same size as her brother, but she had a cheekiness about her that spread from one blonde plait to the other.
The wood woodcutter had very little land he could use to grow food, and very few coins to buy from the market, so one year, when the seed did not grow, and the game fled, and famine darkened the land, he and his wife could no longer make the daily bread for their little family.
“What will become of us, wife?” said the woodcutter, sat in bed, his arms around his love and his brow creased with worry. “How can we feed our poor children if we have nothing left even for ourselves?”
“We do as some others,” replied the woman, who was steeped in ancient and often dark customs. “We take the children early in the morn into the thickest forest by the paths they won’t know. We start a fire and give them each one piece of bread, then we go on our way, back to our home. They are too young, and they will not find their way back home. We’ll be rid of them.”
“Nay!” said the man, angrily. “That I cannot do. My heart would be aggrieved to leave my children alone in the forest where the wild beasts would tear them apart with their teeth and claws!”
“Then you are fool, husband,” retorted his wife, in harsh voice. “For we will all starve to death, the four of us, and you can use the last of the wood to make our coffins, for we will not need it for nowt else!”
And so they argued for half the night, and the wife gave her husband no peace until, at last, he agreed.
“But I will mourn the poor children,” said the man. “I will mourn them forever.”
It is an error of all parents in believing that if they talk using longer words, or in an adult tone, that somehow their children develop a mysterious malady of deafness. But a child, from the moment it is born and its ears take in the world, hears all, and it is only a lack of experience if it mistakes what it hears.
Through the thin walls of the poor dwelling, the brother and sister sat huddled together, unable to sleep for the hunger in their bellies. And the words of their parents came to them, and they mistook not one single word.
Gretel shook with bitter tears. “Hansel, my brother, it will be the end of us.”
“Hush, Gretel,” said Hansel, “Don’t give up yet and grieve. We will find a way to save ourselves. Together, like we always do.”
At last, the cottage fell silent, and the children could hear the uneasy sleeping breaths of the woodcutter and his wife. Hansel pulled on his little coat, crept to the door, and stole out into the cold night. The moon was high in the starlit sky, and the little white pebbles which lay on the path in front of the house shone like silver coins. Hansel bent down and took as many of the tiny pebbles as he could stuff into his pockets. Then he crept inside again. “Gretel,” he whispered. “Get some sleep. Everything will be fine. I promise.” And he lay down again in their small, cold bed and drifted into a fearful sleep.
When the day dawned, even before the sun had risen, the wife woke the two children with a shake. “Get up, you lazy brats!” said she, her voice cold. “We are into the forest today to fetch wood for the fire and our keep.” She gave each one a single piece of bread and said, “Take this for your lunch, but do not eat it up, for there will be no more today.”
Gretel tied the bread in her apron because Hansel’s pockets were filled with stones. Then the family set off together for the forest. When they had gone a little way, Hansel turned and looked back to the house. A little farther and he did again.
“Hansel, what are you looking at?” asked his father. “Watch yourself or you will fall over your own feet.”
“Oh, father,” said Hansel, “I’m looking for my white kitten who was sitting on top of the roof to say goodbye to me.”
“Fool of a boy!” said the wife. “That is not your cat but the sun shining off the chimney. Move on with you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the boy. But quick as anything, he did as he had every time he had stopped, and he dropped a little white stone onto the path.
At last, through twists and turns, and circles and ways, so devious they would confuse even the homecoming mouse, they came to the middle of the forest.
“Now gather wood, children, and I will make a fire,” said the father, “so you shall not freeze.”
Little Hansel and Gretel climbed up a small hill above the clearing, collecting dry brushwood from under bushes and young trees. They brought their small bundles back to their father who piled it all up and set his flint and steel to it. And when the fire was hot, the wife said, “Lie down by the fire, children, and take your rest. We’ll go into the forest and cut the wood your father needs. And when we’re done, we’ll come back and collect you.”
Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire on a log, two small children in a huge, dark forest. When the sun was at its highest, the children ate their bread. In the distance they could hear the blows of their father’s axe as he cut the wood for his stores. As the afternoon came and went, the children grew tired and they fell asleep by the fire, curled up in front of the log.
In the dark, an owl called.
“Hansel!” whispered Gretel, waking up. “It’s night!”
Her brother woke slowly. In the distance, they could still hear the axe, and it had not changed one beat or one note.
“We have been tricked, my sister,” said Hansel. “Our father does not cut wood in the dark. He must have hung something from the branches, and it is knocking in the wind.”
Gretel, her eyes wide, looked around. “How do we get home? We cannot see in the dark.”
“We can, I hope,” said her brother. “Once the moon is full and the light shines through the trees.”
And as the moon rose, along the twisting paths, the little white stones shimmered like silver coins and guided them all the way home.
They knocked at the door at dawn having walked through the night, and when the wife opened it and saw that it was Hansel and Gretel, she exclaimed, “You bad, bad children! Why have you slept the night through in the forest? We thought you were never coming back.”
But their father smiled and hugged them, for it had torn his heart in two to leave them in the dark trees.
Not many moons later, a blight struck the farms and they were once more without food.
“The larder is empty again, husband,” said the wife in their bed. “We have but half a loaf of bread, and then we are done for. We cannot feed the children, husband. We will lead them deeper into the forest, so that they do not find the way out again, else we will never save ourselves.”
The father’s heart was heavy and full of remorse and he said to himself, “It would be better for me to share the last bite with my children.”
But the woman turned deaf ears to all he said. She scolded him angrily saying, “He who says A must also say B, and because he gave in the first time, he must do so for the second time!”
The children were still awake, and still not deaf, and they had heard every dreadful word. So, when the house fell quiet, and they could hear the sleeping breaths of their father and his wife, Hansel got up once again to collect stones from the path outside. But the woman had shut fast the door of their tiny room, and the children were locked in.
“We will think of something, Gretel,” whispered Hansel to his sister. “This is not the end of us.”
Before dawn lit the treetops, the woman unlocked the door and got the children out of bed. They were given a small piece of bread each; smaller than before. On their way into the forest, through the towering trees, Hansel once again stopped to look back down the path.
“Now what are you looking for?” asked his father, “Get on your way.”
“I’m looking for my pigeon, who often sits on the roof of our cottage and coos goodbye to me,” answered Hansel.
“Fool of a boy,” said the wife. “That is not your pigeon, that is the morning sun glistening from the chimney above.”
Hansel followed on, but every little way, he dropped a crumb of bread on the ground, while his sister ran on ahead to make sure the father and the wife’s eyes were fixed on her and not on her brother.
The place where they lit their fire was far from any part of the forest the children had ever seen before. It was a dark glade of tall, dense trees, old and forgotten.
The father made a big fire and placed a log for the children to sit on.
“Just sit you there,” said the wife. “Eat your lunch when the sun is high, and if you get sleepy, curl and up and take you rest. We are away into the trees to cut wood for your father’s store. When we are done, we will come back and collect you.”
At noon, the two little children shared Gretel’s bread, which was hardly enough to fill the tummy of a robin. Then they fell asleep in front of the fire, listening to the knocking in the forest which they knew was not their father’s axe, but a trick.
They woke when the night had covered the trees with a black blanket, and, huddled together, they waited for the moon so they might find the breadcrumbs and follow them home.
But when the moon rose, there were no breadcrumbs to be found, for the little birds and mice had picked them all up for their nests and burrows.
“We’ll find the way, Hansel,” said Gretel. “I am sure we will find it.”
They walked all the night through and all through the next day from morning to evening, but they could not find the path home. The forest went on and on, and the children were near to tears with hunger, for they had nothing to eat but a few berries that grew on thorny bushes beneath the trees. And when they became so tired that their legs refused to carry them another step, they lay down under a tree and fell asleep.
It was three days since they had left their father’s house. Three days under the dark trees. Hansel and Gretel had lost their way, and every step took them deeper and deeper into the forest. If they did not find help soon, they would die.
At noon, they saw a graceful snow-white bird sitting on a branch. It sang so beautifully that they stopped to listen, holding hands. When the bird finished its song, it raised its wings and flew before them, beckoning them to follow. By and by, they came to a little house, and the bird sat on the roof and bowed to them.
When the children came closer, they saw that the little house was made of bread. It was covered with cakes and icing, and the windows were of spun sugar that glowed in the sunlight.
Hansel rushed up to the little house and stroked the wall and the eves. “I am so hungry!” he told his sister. “I want to eat the roof! Gretel, you can eat the window.” He licked the glass. “It is so very sugary!” The children set to work. Hansel broke off a piece of bread from the eves, and Gretel licked at the window, a smile on her little round face. And then, a soft, happy voice, sang from inside the house.
“Nibble, nibble, nibble, gnaw!
Who is nibbling at my door?”
And the children answered:
“The wind, the wind, the heavenly wind!”
And they ate all the more without stopping for a breath. Hansel, who was enjoying his feast of roof tiles, tore off a large chunk and shoved it into his mouth. And Gretel pushed out a whole round windowpane, sat down in the soft grass, and nibbled at the edge as happy as a singing lark.
Then suddenly the door opened wide, and an old woman, leaning on a crutch, hobbled out into the garden. Hansel and Gretel jumped up in surprise, their stolen food dropping from their hands onto the ground. But the old woman wagged her head, smiling in a kindly way. “Dear, dear children, who brought you here? My little feathered friend? Just the sort of kind thing he would do. Come inside, come inside, and stay with me, for no harm will come to you here.” She took both by the hand and led them into her house of bread. There on the table was the best of food. Milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts. And cakes aplenty. And when they were quite stuffed full, she led them to two little cots, dressed with soft white linen sheets. The children climbed into the beds, pulled the sheets up to their chins, and smiled so happily.
But this is a tale of an old, hungry woman in a deep dark forest. Not a kindly aunt as she had appeared, but a wicked witch who had built a house of bread and sweetness to entice innocent children. And if any should pass her way, and fall for her tricks, she would stuff them full, slaughter them for the oven, eat them as a grand feast.
Not many know that witches have cloudy eyes and cannot see at all well, but they have a fine sense of smell set in a grand nose, and can sniff out a human child for many paces through the thickest wood. When Hansel and Gretel had followed the bird into her little clearing, she had laughed mischievously and sneered, “I have them now! They shall never escape me.”
Early in the morning, before the children had awakened, the witch spied on them, all curled up in the white sheets with their full red cheeks.
“They shall be a tasty morsel indeed, they shall,” said the witch, cackling. Then she seized Hansel with her scrawny, withered hand and dragged him crying into a small stable and slammed shut the grated door, locking it with a key. Poor Hansel screamed and cried and kicked at the door, but the witch paid him no heed.
Then she went to Gretel, shook her awake. “Get thee up, wench! Go fetch the bucket and bring in the water, and cook something good for your brother. For I wants him fatter. And when he is I will roast him and eat him.”
Gretel began to cry bitterly, but it was all in vain. With a sad heart she did what the evil witch demanded of her.
Poor old Hansel got the best food he had ever been fed, but Gretel got nothing but crab shells. Each morning the old witch hobbled to the stables and shouted, “Hansel, stretch out your finger so I can test how fat you are.”
But Hansel had found a chicken bone in the stable, and he pushed it through the bars. The witch with her cloudy eyes, could not see the bone for what it really was, and she thought it was Hansel’s finger – all thin and bony. And she couldn’t work out why the boy seemed to grow no fatter.
When four weeks had passed and Hansel was as thin as ever, the witch grew impatient and angry.
“Gretel,” she called the girl, “Bring me water! Hansel may be fat or thin, but tomorrow I will slaughter and cook him.”
The poor little sister cried as she staggered along with the heavy bucket, and the tears flowed down her cheeks.
“Dear God, help us,” she exclaimed, “If only the wild beasts had eaten us in the forest, at least we would have died together.”
“Save your whining,” said the old woman, “for nothing will help you now.”
Early the next morning, Gretel was ordered to hang the kettle of water over the fire.
“First we will bake,” said the old witch. “For I like a bit of bread with my delicious supper. I have already heated the oven and kneaded the dough.” She grabbed poor Gretel and shoved her to the oven. Little hot flames licked around the opening. “Creep in,” said the witch, “and see if it’s hot enough for our dough.” The witch grinned, for once Gretel had crept in, she would slam shut the iron door, and Gretel would be roasted in time for tea.
But little Gretel so hated the witch that she knew what she was about.
“I do not know how to do it; how do I get in there?” she said, her eyes wide and innocent.
“Stupid goose,” snapped the old witch,” the opening is more than big enough for you, child. You see, I could even fit in there myself!” And she pulled Gretel out of the way and stuck her head in the oven.
Gretel charged up behind the witch and shoved as hard as she could. The witch had such a shock that she shot right into the oven. Then cried out when the iron door slammed shut and the bolt slid across. The witch screamed and cried as the flames licked her all over, and she banged at the iron door as she was roasted good and proper. Gretel backed away, her hand in her mouth, as the devil of a witch was burned to cinders.
And then Gretel ran to the stables and forced open the door. “Hansel!” she cried. “We are safe at last. The old witch is dead and roasted.”
Hansel sprang from his cage like a bird, and he wrapped his arms around his dear sister and they kissed and danced and jumped around in joy.
Now the witch was dead, they searched through the cottage. And in every corner, they found boxes of pearls and precious stones.
“These are even better than white pebbles,” said Hansel, and he stuffed his pockets full.
And Gretel said, “I will take some too!” And she filled her apron to bursting. “And now, Hansel, let us escape this horrible forest.”
And so they did. But when they had travelled for just a few hours, they reached a lake far too wide for them to cross.
“How do we cross?” asked Hansel. “I see no bridge or wooden path.”
“And no boat, neither,” said his sister. “But see there. A white duck. If I ask nicely, perhaps she will take us.” So Gretel sang out to the white duck.
“Dear white duck, can you not see?
Hansel and Gretel are waiting for thee.
There’s no fine bridge or boat in sight.
Will you carry us on your back so white?”
The duck, being a friendly soul, swam up and bowed her head, and Hansel sat upon her back and beckoned his sister to join him.
“We will be far too heavy for our feathered friend,” said Gretel. “Dear white duck, will you take my brother then return for me?”
And when the duck had carried the children across the lake, Gretel gave her a piece of cake, and the duck sang happily, for she liked cake.
The children walked on through the thick forest, but little by little, it became more familiar. They recognised some of the trees and the paths, and even found a little row of white stones. And at last they saw from afar their father’s house. They ran through the door, looking around fearfully for the wife, but all they found was their father, sitting in his chair, starving hungry, and crying. They threw themselves in his arms and Hansel asked him, “Where is your wife, father?”
But the woman had starved to death, and their father was grieving for he had thought his children dead too.
“But I have nothing,” said the father. “No bread to feed you and nowt to buy bread with.”
Then Gretel opened her apron, and the pearls poured out and bounced around the room, and Hansel threw one handful of jewels after the other from his pockets. All their fears were gone, and they lived together on the edge of the great forest, happily ever after.
And so, my fairy tale is done, and over there is a mouse, sneaking around the wall. Do you not think he will make a fine fur cap for someone very small? I think I know just the girl.
The story has left me with a bit of a puzzle. Running the original German from 1857 through a translator and then comparing it with the well-known translation by Margaret Hunt, the wife is mostly known as the wife or the woman. It is not clear she is the children’s mother. So I am guessing that she is not their mother at all. But that is only a guess. I rather hope she wasn’t their mum and was quite happy to abandon them in the forest. If any experts in folk tales can clear that up for me, I would love to hear from you. Contact me on Twitter, Facebook, or through the website. Deep in the dark forest dot com.
I like that Gretel is just as plucky as her brother Hansel, though in the first part of the story, it is him that takes the lead. I have changed that very slightly to give her a bit of a lift because I think it makes more sense when she eventually rescues him from the witch’s dinner menu.
Like many of these tales, there are some fairly alarming plot holes which would challenge any modern editor. The father is a woodsman with a big axe. If he is that upset, surely he would have taken it to the wife who must have had a bigger appetite than the children! She does die in the end, but was it of starvation? We don’t know for it doesn’t say in the story, just that she is dead. I added the starvation idea because the twist kind of leapt out of nowhere.
And lastly, where in a great forest in Germany did the witch find crab shells to feed to poor little Gretel?
Shall we have a little poem? How about an ode to a dragon from my fantasy saga Dirt?
So great the noble beast and proud
Arisen high on rocks so bare,
Survey she all and seeing want,
In her true heart she can but care.
Her golden eyes are justice lit,
Her soul would fairness decree,
And smite she once those callous hearts
Who push the weak upon their knee.
Her wings she opens wide and bright,
The sun shines through their sails,
And to the clouds, she soars and cries
Of loss o’er tor and vale.
From high no borders can she spy,
Only in men’s hearts to they live,
And she will fight for the lowest soul,
And her life she’ll gladly give.
Oh, dragon proud, hear me now,
Your shadow ‘cross the sun above,
Hold me safe and hope now bring,
And in return, I’ll give my love.
If you liked that, you can find the first two series of my fantasy saga Dirt on the website A World Called Dirt dot com. It is a tale about the fight for freedom by a group of young people and the dragons who become the best of friends.
And that is it for another week. I haven’t decided on the next story, but I might just do one of my own for a change. Would you like that? Let me know on Twitter or Instagram. Links in the show notes that comes with this podcast, or you can find out more on my website – Deep in the Dark Forest dot com.
You’ve been listening to Deep in the Dark Forest. I am CC Hogan and wish you good fortune as you travel on your way.